It’s one of the most infamous false confession cases in the annals of false confessions. It’s also a case of unrequited innocence as the two defendants who falsely confessed over eight years after the murders, still remain wrongfully convicted. But the magic of DNA evidence, coupled with excellent legal work, has finally resulted in the release of Michael Scott and Robert Springsteen, who, like the four female victims, in the Austin Yogurt Shop murder/rape cases, were only teenagers when the crime shocked the Austin, TX community. DNA evidence which excludes the defendants and identifies an unknown perpetrator has caused prosecutors in this case to obtain the DNA of a wide array of over 130 potential suspects and persons who may have contaminated the evidence. Still no matches to the defendants. Some of the new DNA came from the same unknown male and was found in two of the victims (according to the Austin American Statesman) instead of only one of the girls (as reported by the NYT). In the face of this new evidence --what’s a prosecutor to do?
Austin DA Rosemary Lehmberg is weighing her options. She is continuing to try to link the defendants to the crimes and to find out whose DNA was found on the girls. But she has also raised concerns about whether the case can go to the jury without a name to match the DNA. She deserves some credit for at least raising this issue as there are several cases where prosecutors have pushed forward anyway, putting before the jury explanations without evidence – claims that the victims had consensual sex or that the DNA was contaminated. Michael Waller and Mike Mermel of Lake County, Illinois did just that in the recent conviction of Juan Rivera for the murder and rape of Holly Staker.
The moral of the story is that confession evidence is so powerful in court and the notion of a false confession so counterintuitive that jurors may reject science and convict innocent defendants. DA Lehmberg may get there yet – and join the ranks of the unprincipled prosecutors who are more concerned with preserving convictions than with justice – but so far she is proceeding with caution. Let's hope it she stays the course. Stay tuned.